#LiteraryWives: Monogamy by Sue Miller

Literary Wives is an on-line book group that examines the meaning and role of wife in different books. Four times a year, we post and discuss a book with this question in mind:

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

Don’t forget to check out the other members of Literary Wives to see what they have to say about the book!

Monogamy by Sue Miller

Goodreads synopsis: Graham and Annie have been married for nearly thirty years. A golden couple, their seemingly effortless devotion has long been the envy of their circle of friends and acquaintances. 

Graham is a bookseller, a big, gregarious man with large appetites—curious, eager to please, a lover of life, and the convivial host of frequent, lively parties at his and Annie’s comfortable house in Cambridge. Annie, more reserved and introspective, is a photographer. She is about to have her first gallery show after a six-year lull and is worried that the best years of her career may be behind her. They have two adult children; Lucas, Graham’s son with his first wife, Frieda, works in New York. Annie and Graham’s daughter, Sarah, lives in San Francisco. Though Frieda is an integral part of this far-flung, loving family, Annie feels confident in the knowledge that she is Graham’s last and greatest love.

 When Graham suddenly dies—this man whose enormous presence has seemed to dominate their lives together—Annie is lost. What is the point of going on, she wonders, without him? 

 Then, while she is still mourning him intensely, she discovers that Graham had been unfaithful to her; and she spirals into darkness, wondering if she ever truly knew the man who loved her.

Warning: Contains Spoilers!!!

I thought this book was really well-done. If you’re looking for plot and action with unforeseen twists, this is not for you. Monogamy is a character-driven, insightful examination of a marriage.

I worried when I saw that it was another book in which the wife discovers–after her husband’s death–that he had been unfaithful. The Literary Wives have read books like that before. But this one seemed more realistic. (For one thing, it involved being unfaithful rather than having a whole other secret life.) It also lets the reader make up their own mind how they feel about what happens. Is Graham a sleezeball for cheating? Or is he a flawed human who deserves forgiveness?

More interesting, I thought, than Annie’s and Graham’s marriage was Graham’s relationship with his first wife Frieda, whom he has a son with. They parted amicably and need to keep in contact because of their son, but Frieda remains very close, and even becomes good friends with Annie. Graham would often go visit Frieda and talk with her about things he might not even tell Annie. Is Graham intentionally keeping her on the hook? Or does he still feel genuinely close to her? Either way, he is only thinking of himself because I don’t think it was a good thing for Frieda. Frieda never really seems to get her own space.

Graham is described as having a big personality, and the kind of guy who likes to please. But is he really thinking of others when he says yes to everything, or is he just doing what’s easiest?

I was also interested in Sarah and Annie’s relationship. Of course there was love, but Annie also seemed to almost pity her own daughter – mainly, it seemed, for inheriting her father’s height and size. I love that Sarah had a whole life that Annie didn’t know about – that Sarah didn’t seem to feel the need to ease her mother’s worry about her life.

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

Annie and Graham had a long, happy marriage before Graham’s death. Like many marriages, there was the good and the bad. Although, at times, Annie felt as though Graham’s personality was “overwhelming”, she also credits him for pushing her to be more than she felt she would have been otherwise. “… her life with him made her more generous than she actually was, connected her to people in a way that would have been impossible if she’d still been on her own.” Graham’s death made Annie realize how much he was at the center of her life; she didn’t know how she could pass the days without him.

Annie was deep into grieving for him when she found out about his most recent affair. She felt like everything she had lived and known was false. Worst of all, her anger and questions had no where to go. Graham was no longer around to shout at or to be asked to explain his behaviour. If he loved her as much as she thought he did, why would he cheat on her? “… this insult separated her from Graham more than his death had.”

In the end, Annie learns that, for her own peace of mind, there’s no sense in rehashing the whys and hows forever in her mind. She comes to be grateful for all the happy memories he’s left her with; she remembers that she loved him.

Join us in September for The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler!

P.S. Gone camping! Be sure to visit the other Literary Wives – I’ll join the conversation when I get back!

33 thoughts on “#LiteraryWives: Monogamy by Sue Miller

  1. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead says:

    Although Sue Miller isn’t one of my favorites, I do think she’s quite talented and I generally like her work. I read this novel last April. As you point out, Miller did a nice job of depicting several interesting characters in an tension-fraught setting of unexpected death, family relationships and marital infidelity. We see both Gordon and Annie from several different perspectives (that of their children & friends, Gordon’s ex-spouse and each other). Like you, I thought the Gordon-Frieda (ex-wife) relationship was perhaps the most interesting. Gordon’s moved on, has another wife and child and yet returns to Frieda with many of his problems, including his relationship with Annie, wife No. 2. As you say, Gordon has a good deal here — a secondary wife with no obligations — while Frieda? well, she gets to be an auxiliary to his new family. Did you club discuss the role of “wife” vis a vis Frieda? Annie is the obvious “wife” but I actually think Frieda qualifies as well and in so many ways she’s far more unconventional.
    Annie seems to have adopted the traditional role of family first, career second, followed years later by some regrets (as you point out, she’s clearly worried her best years as an artist are behind her). As I recall, she almost welcomed a career break when her daughter was born and someone (Frieda maybe?) told her that, far from taking a break, this was actually the time she should be taking photos. I had the impression when I read the book that Annie’s career never regained its trajectory; this pattern, alas, seems pretty common.
    Although I thought the book was well done and definitely worth reading, I was disappointed that I didn’t like it more. It probably would have helped had I found Gordon a more compelling character but quite honestly I couldn’t see the charm and often found myself thinking “why are people putting up with this guy?” More importantly, however, I found the whole cast of characters and setting, including friends (all well-heeled professional people), the bookstore with the poetry readings, the dinners and the Boston suburb in which all of these folks lived (Cambridge? adjacent to Cambridge?) rather smug and privileged. This is totally a personal reaction and shouldn’t prevent others from enjoying a well-done and character driven novel.

    • Naomi says:

      Yes! You just put into words something I was feeling about the novel, but didn’t ever fully form into a thought because I was so focused on the marriage. It is definitely a privileged viewpoint – which is a good thing to keep in mind.

      It’s true that Graham and Annie weren’t my favourite characters – I was much more interested in Frieda and Sarah. Why I didn’t talk more about Frieda’s experience as a wife is a good question – I should have! (In my defense, I wrote this post at the last minute and still had some packing to do. Ha!)
      I love all your thoughts on the book – so great that you were able to join in the conversation! Thanks for sharing your thoughts! 🙂

  2. The Paperback Princess says:

    We felt very definitely about this one! Although reading your thoughts on it make me wonder if I was too hard on it. I couldn’t get past all the men with their mommy issues, ragging on the women in their lives for not being enough. And also the weird thing Miller seems to have with fatness. All the good people in the book are thin whereas those who are “bad” are fat. Hated that too.

    But I did think it was interesting to see so many different marriages at play, in different states. I think Frieda and Sarah were my favourites, both of them were kind of cut off from everyone else.

    I couldn’t wait to be done with this one, though.

    • Naomi says:

      I can’t believe I didn’t notice all the mommy issues you listed – I can see why that would have turned you off!
      I did notice the issue Annie had with Sarah’s “fatness”, but didn’t notice it extended beyond that. I didn’t get the feeling that there were “bad” vs. “good” characters (in the author’s eyes, anyway). But maybe she had feelings about her characters that came out in subtle ways.

      I feel like I should have written more about Frieda’s experience of being a wife, because I feel like she’s still reeling from it 30 years later!
      Hopefully you like the next one better! 🙂

    • Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead says:

      Oh, I think if anything I was too critical, probably because I was just a little disappointed. I’ve read several of Miller’s books and always enjoyed them very much; in retrospect, I think my slight disappointment here led me to over react.
      Vis á vis Frieda: what interested me was less that Gordon maintained his ties with her (I agree that this pattern frequently occurs after the end of a partnership) but that Frieda herself didn’t seem to have moved along. She was o.k. with Gordon’s new arrangement, so in that sense I suppose she had, but . . . . what was HER replacement relationship? The only one I could see was maternal, with a son who seemed somewhat less than enthused about it.
      I had forgotten the whole weight issue. Yes, it was definitely there but I’m not entirely sure Miller was on the side of the thin folks. Miller did make it plain that Annie’s attitude had clearly affected her daughter in a negative way but — as you say, the main femal characters seemed to be thin and physically attractive.
      My apologies for rambling on — the fact that I’m doing so is a testament to Miller and her ability to elicit a reaction!

      • Naomi says:

        So true! There’s a lot of good discussion material in this book!

        I felt the same way about Frieda – she didn’t seem to be able to move on herself. Miller implied that Frieda left him because she couldn’t stand being cheated on anymore, but I had the feeling that she still loved him. Which means, less contact between the two of them would probably have been better for her. She was described as kind of dowdy, which made me want to see her move on even more!

  3. Laila@BigReadingLife says:

    Hmm, the issue with weight/size is a red flag for me, but I appreciate that it seems to be a complex examination of a complex issue (infidelity.) I don’t think I’ll add it to my TBR, though!

    • Naomi says:

      I thought that was an interesting thing for her to throw into her novel, as well. In Graham, it wasn’t seen as a bad thing, but Annie seemed very concerned about it in her daughter. I don’t know why… maybe to add another layer of complexity to their relationship. Really, though, it just made me mad. As a mother, I don’t understand how she could have dwelled on it so much.

  4. whatmeread says:

    It didn’t occur to me to bring in Frieda, but she was an important part of the book. You made some interesting points. I liked the one about making up your own mind. Maybe that was what I felt as distance.

    • Naomi says:

      I can see how that would feel like the author was at a distance… I felt like she was telling us this story about these people and then letting us make up our own minds about them.
      And, yes, Frieda. I’m feeling now as though I should have spent even more time on her. It’s funny, though… I really do read these LW book through a different lens… I’m sure I miss some of the other stuff while focusing on the marriage stuff. Not a complaint, just an observation! I completely missed some of the things Eva mentioned!

      • whatmeread says:

        Well, I did, too. I wasn’t sure I agreed with her comment about fat people being “bad,” though. There were after all only a couple of people in the book that were heavy, which isn’t necessarily representative of society.

      • whatmeread says:

        Actually, it’s interesting that you say that, because I usually read our books as I do other books and then sometimes have to stretch for the marriage stuff. This time, I didn’t know what I thought about it for some time after I read it.

      • Naomi says:

        I had to think about this one, too. From what I read, Annie’s experience as a wife was a happy one. By the time she’s unhappy about her marriage, she’s a widow. Does that change her experience, or just the way she sees it?

  5. Rebecca Foster says:

    I’m glad you enjoyed this one. It ended up being one of my favourite books of last year. I’m relieved that I started it not knowing anything about what happened, though — it meant Miller was able to totally shock me.

    I’ll be reading The Amateur Marriage in mid-August for Liz’s readalong, so it will be fresh in my mind to comment on your next read as well!

    Hope you have a great time on your camping trip.

    • Naomi says:

      It’s so much fun when others have also read the books!
      Spoiler alert: I was shocked when Graham died – for some reason, I had no idea that was coming!

      Camping trip was short but sweet. We got lots of swimming in! 🙂

  6. wadholloway says:

    As you know, I enjoy “Literary Wives” without ever reading or even having heard of the books you discuss. Part of it I guess, is that I read to discover how other people manage relationships. I’m a Graham, not in being secretly unfaithful, but in not letting go of, in my case, my second wife, with whom I had children and, eventually, grew up. Guys often hang onto their first wife. It’s not exactly mothering but they’ve generally seen you through a lot and you turn to them almost automatically. Second wives have a different function – decoration/stimulation maybe. The point is I can see why a woman writer would want to explore that.

    • Naomi says:

      It’s so great to get your perspective on it, Bill. I had no idea men felt that way about their wives! I felt bad for Frieda, though, because I think his sticking around as her close friend prevented her from moving on. Perhaps this isn’t the norm for first wives?

    • Naomi says:

      It’s true – Graham would never make it on my list of favourite characters… but his character is interesting. Why does he do what he does? He doesn’t seem to know why himself!

      We had a lovely little trip – thank you! 🙂

  7. annelogan17 says:

    Awww I love the sound of this one. And although you didn’t necessarily pose this question, if my husband cheated on me and I didn’t find out until he was dead…first of all, he’d be lucky he was dead so I couldn’t scream at him in person, but it would so much easier to just live in ignorance and bliss about this affair. Especially when there’s nothing you can do to change it! It sounds heartbreaking, but still very lovely…

    • Naomi says:

      I think you’d like this one, Anne. And you make a good point! Yes, I think it would be better just not to know about it at all! It’s interesting, because she doesn’t find out about it until later on, so the book isn’t only focused on that one thing – there’s quite a lot of other discussion points.

  8. buriedinprint says:

    This one is still on my TBR but I probably won’t get to it this year. Over the years, I’ve heard a couple of interviews and they intrigued me. Hopefully, by the time I do get to reading it, I will have forgotten that Graham dies…LOL Who is Graham?! Don’t tell me! Because even though I obeyed your spoiler warning in the post, I didn’t think that there would be spoilers in the comments. Pffft. ANYway, a fantastic review in the NYT would have convinced me, even if Susan’s enthusiasm and yours and my vague ideas about her writing hadn’t done the trick!

    • Naomi says:

      Ack! Sorry about the spoiler! But, yeah, I do tend to just say whatever I want for the LW posts so it can feel to me more like a real-life book group. It makes it much easier to discuss the book – which, to me, is the whole idea. If you just wait a bit, you’ll forget all about it! 🙂

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